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Touching The Third Rail: Israel and New York Politics

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When I announced that I was entering the race for the U.S. Senate, I began with a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter." I am not a professional politician whose sole goal is to accumulate power so I have the freedom to speak my mind and I will not be silent.

I've touched the "third rail" of politics in New York: the Israel-Palestine conflict, the dreadful occupation and the never-ending violence that is spinning out of control, in large part because the United States--and politicians like Hillary Clinton--continue to blindly pursue a one-sided policy in the Palestinian-Israel conflict, a policy that is causing more death and sorrow for civilians on all sides of the conflict.

From the beginning of this race, I was committed to speaking the truth, whether about the Iraq war/occupation or abusive corporate power or the corruption coursing through our political system. People are simply fed up with the pandering, the triangulation and the inability to speak the truth that is endangering our country's future, our relations in the world and our well-being at home. We need a real opposition party, a Democratic Party with a vision that has the spine to stand for something authentic and honest.

It's worth voters in New York knowing a little about where I come from on the issue of Israel-Palestine and the raging conflict engulfing the region today. I speak about Israel out of love and pain, in the same way that I am a deeply patriotic American who is harshly critical of our government and its behavior in Iraq--and of Hillary Clinton's vote to send our men and women to die into an illegal, immoral war.

My father was born in then-Palestine. He fought in the Haganah (the Israeli underground) in the war of independence; my father's cousin, whose name I carry as a middle name, was killed in that war. I lived in Israel for seven years, during which I went through the 1973 war: a cousin of mine was killed in that war, leaving a young widow and two children, and his brother was wounded. My step-grandfather, an old man who was no threat to anyone, was killed by a Palestinian who took an axe to his head while he was sitting quietly on a park bench. Half my family still lives in Israel. I have seen enough bloodshed, tears, and parents burying their children to last many lifetimes.

For that reason, I believe passionately in a two-state solution, which includes a strong, independent, economically viable Palestinian state existing along side a strong, independent, economically vibrant Israel. It is the only solution that will bring peace to the civilians who now live in fear of death raining down from above--either because of the missiles of Hezbollah or the bombs of Israeli aircraft.

So, here is what I said--and did not say--that has touched off this discussion and the press coverage (I certainly hope there is such interest when I release my economic program). I did not say that Israel is a terrorist state. I did say--and have said for a long time--that Israel has committed acts that violate international standards and the Geneva conventions. In Israel, my statement that the military has committed acts that violate the Geneva convention and international standards and has also engaged in torture (or, as it is called, "moderate pressure") would be a subject of debate but hardly considered novel or particularly radical. Among the many sources for the truth, beyond my personal experience, is the Israeli human rights organization, B'Tselem. If you visit the organization's website, you will find condemnation of both Israeli and Palestinian violence against civilians of each side.

Here is what B'Tselem says about the current escalation:

"...the organization reiterates that international humanitarian law (IHL) obligates all parties taking part in hostilities to refrain from launching attacks against civilians or against civilian objects.

IHL requires that the combating sides direct their attacks only against specific military objectives, take cautionary measures to prevent injury to civilians, and refrain from disproportionate attacks, i.e. attacks directed against legitimate targets, but that are likely to cause excessive harm to civilian. Furthermore, IHL clearly forbids the intimidation and terrorising of civilians, as well as collective punishment.

Over the past week, Israel has killed hundreds of Lebanese civilians in its attacks against targets in Lebanon. There is a concern that at least some of them were disproportionate attacks, which constitute war crimes. In addition, Israel has launched deliberate attacks against civilian infrastructure throughout Lebanon, such as bridges, the Beirut international airport , the electricity supply and fuel reservoirs. There is a concern that such attacks are intended to put pressure on the Lebanese Government and not to obtain a specific military advantage. If this is the case, these attacks constitute collective punishment and a grave violation of IHL. Moreover, even if these targets constitute legitimate military objects, or civilian objectives that may be used for military purposes, Israel must respect the principle of proportionality and refrain from attacks that would cause excessive harm to civilians."

The problem is not the debate in Israel. The problem is the debate--or lack thereof--in the United States.

Senator Clinton's spokesperson has called my comments "beyond the pale." With all due respect, it is Senator Clinton's behavior, lack of leadership and failure to call for a respect for international law that should be questioned by the press, the Jewish community and the voters of New York. At a time when the violence against people on both sides of the border has killed hundreds of innocent people (mostly Lebanese), Hillary Clinton has fanned the flames of the conflict by recognizing and condemning the violence only against Israelis and effectively encouraging military action. I, too, have stated clearly, from the outset, that Hezbollah's actions violate international law. But, to ignore Israel's actions is abhorrent, weak and cowardly.

I don't believe Senator Clinton is a true friend of Israel. A friend of Israel, not someone who simply seeks votes, would understand that employing collective punishment against people in Lebanon only embitters a population, possibly for generations, and that even a short-term military victory will be empty if it leaves behind a shattered country. As an article in The New York Times illustrated: "We're not Hezbollah supporters, but we cannot excuse what the Israelis are doing," said Rima Beydoun, a secular Shiite who owns an advertising agency. "We knew there would be repercussions, but no one expected they would be like this," Mr. Salhab, the filmmaker, said of Shiite support for Hezbollah. "I am very critical of that part of my country, but I have to put it aside, because we are being destroyed. At this point, I can't just say: Hezbollah, go to hell."

A friend of Israel, not someone who simply seeks votes, would never have stood before the "security wall" in the West Bank, as Senator Clinton did, and praised it--even though it has been found to be illegal under international law and by the Israeli Supreme Court (which said that, if a wall needed to be built, it should not stray outside the "green line" into the occupied territories). A friend of Israel would argue strenuously that Israel's moral fiber and its security is weakened every moment that that wall stands in its place, in violation of the law of Israel, severing families from their land, separating people and filling more people with rage and despair.

A friend of Israel, not someone who simply seeks votes, would deplore the collective punishment employed by the Israeli army in Gaza. As Rabbi Michael Lerner has suggested, in the wake of the democratic elections that brought Hamas to power in Gaza, "Instead of narrowly focusing on Hamas' capacity to make war, the Israelis chose the path of collective punishment, a frequently ineffective counterinsurgency policy used to eliminate public support for resistance movements. In the height of the oppressive summer heat, Israel bombed the electricity grid, effectively cutting off Gaza's water and the electricity needed to keep refrigeration working, thereby guaranteeing a dramatic decrease in food for the area's already destitute, million plus population. This act was yet another violation of international law that include[d] the arrests of thousands by Israelis and the shooting of Qassams at population centers by Hamas."

I have challenged Senator Clinton to come out into the public arena, stop hiding behind her spokespeople and spinners and image consultants. Let's debate the future of Israel and Palestine, publicly, on television, in front of the voters. Right now, in the coming days because the violence in the Middle East is rising. Pick the time and place.

I would end with this thought: As a Jew, I have always been proud of the Jewish concept of "Tikkun Olam" or "repairing the world." I like to think that that is what brought so many Jews into the civil rights and labor movements in the 1960s and 1970s, and into the current anti-war movement--and, personally, guided me into the world of social justice work. I feel great sorrow that Israel is an occupier of another people and I believe that Israel can never be whole and can never be at peace until that occupation is ended in a just way. And I also believe that the concept of Tikkun Olam means that we must never be silent.